July 7, 2015. Sunny afternoon in the Bolivian capital La Paz. The entrance of the main city church is besieged by crowds of people, among them there are photo-reporters and a whole bunch of policemen from special forces, in their tight black uniforms with their lips pursed. On the steps worn with pilgrims’ knees, there are several nuns sitting: they clutch each other repeating like a mantra the phrases: ‘Hail Mary, you are full of rebelliousness’ and ‘Every day your church crucifies women whereas feminism raises them from the dead’.
Watching the bizarre scene closely, one can notice that the nuns are pregnant. Every time when the police tries to unlink the chain, violently dragging the nuns from the church stairs, they topple over, flapping their legs in the air. Eventually policemen have managed to pull one of the nuns out. As soon as she remains alone, not protected by anyone, the cops furiously start stripping her of the habit. The mob seems to be indignant, but still keeps silent.
The cameras’ shutters are clicking feverishly: there is a fake belly appearing from under the habit. Indeed, this woman is not a nun. Her name is María Galindo, she is an open lesbian and one of the founders of the radical feminist Bolivian organization Mujeres Creando. The performance is a gift to the Pope who was going to Bolivia within his official visit to some countries of South America: Mujeres Creando became the only organization that dared to make a protest against the Catholic church and its hypocritical policies that allow priests to rape nuns, but make abortions and gay marriages a crime.
The Pope has come to speak about godliness that leads to prosperity. He looks at the eyes of thousands of indigenous women, so called cholas, who are beaten by their husbands and left by their government without proper education and jobs, and he tells them that the church is the solution to all their problems. Cholas are silently listening to him, it is hard to read what’s written on their tan indian faces. What did give birth to the phenomenon of Mujeres Creando in a country like that? Or maybe, they appeared in the teeth of it?
About three months after the notorious performance I’m sitting in Virgen de Los Deseos, both headquarters of Mujeres and a lovely coffee shop with an option of a hostel, waiting for Maria. Their cafe is some sort of a cooperative where all 23 women, Mujeres Creando participants work switching shifts. Together with graffiti, there are some curious phrases written on the walls. One of them says: Indias, putas, lesbianas, juntas revueltas y hermanadas – Indigenous, whores, lesbians, rebellious and twinned together. What could it possibly mean? Maria’s voice is heard from the cafe’s speakers: it’s the five last minutes of her show on their communal radio station, Radio Deseo. I don’t try to figure what the discussion is about, but from time to time I catch words ‘femicide’ and ‘injustice’. She has already postponed our interview two times alleging the lack of time, so I don’t really know what to expect. Here she flies in, absolutely flawless: dressed up in black, with her head partly shaved, extravagant accessories and purposely garish make-up.
“A woman can be murdered here like a homeless dog by her mighty husband.”
She doesn’t have much time, but if I’m ready we can start as soon as she gets her smoothie, she says. Together with Maria, I also managed to meet a younger member of the group, Danitza Luna. The three of us are sitting in a small room on the third floor of Virgen de los Deseos, where they usually take workshops and meetings. While Maria is sipping something green from the enormous glass, my first question is about how Mujeres Creando project started:
We started in 1992 when Bolivia was experiencing the era of neoliberalism and society has become a little bit more open. It provoked certain growth of social mobility and made the idea of Mujeres Creando possible. However nothing was easy, formation of Mujeres Creando had a thorny path. Everything we did: from street art activity, educational programs like workshops of alphabetization to work with university spaces and women’s syndicates – we had to do in a clandestine way. It was a really long and exhausting process to find the associates and the voice in the social and political scene of the country.
How did you come up with the name?
We chose the name (Women Creating) because the main tool for changing society is not a violence as our government used to think, but creativity. In order to protest, sensitize, provoke and irritate the society you have to be creative, otherwise you would never be heard. They call us lesbians, crazy, ugly, hysterical, bad women. The official Bolivian media does everything to hide the real message of our activism, translating it to their language, claiming us as nuts. That doesn’t surprise me at all. The strangest thing is that regular people who receive this peculiar representation, manage to read between lines and get the message correctly.
Does it mean that everyone understood your pregnant nun performance?
No fear! Our goal was not to be understood by the majority but to open the discussion. The Pope came with the official visit to the poorest countries of South America (Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru) where thousands of women every year die from domestic violence caused by machismo and consequences of illegal abortions. The countries with the highest femicide rate in Latin America where a woman can be murdered like a homeless dog by her mighty husband. So the Pope came and not a single person brought in an exception against it. On the contrary, everyone was writhing in ecstasy about his visit: the governmental machine of propaganda said the Pope had to be extended a warm welcome. We were the only ones who opposed this madness. To protest against the Pope’s visit dressed up as pregnant nuns is an extremely risky and contradictory thing to do in such a Catholic country as Bolivia. We were aware of that and ready for any kind of reaction from the society and the government, because we don’t work for an applause or appreciation The most important part of ‘taking the streets’ for us is starting a debate. What would a thirteen years old girl think seeing a pregnant nun? Most likely, she wouldn’t understand the idea, but the scene would make her question some axioms that seemed solid before.
“The main tool for changing society is not a violence as our government used to think, but creativity.”
What was the feedback from the media?
(Danitza enters the conversation)
The performance was covered by numerous international web-pages and magazines, the funniest part that the local media pretended that nothing has happened, they simply ignored the occurrence. Probably, the eloquent silence of the official press in the best manner possible reveals the grotesque atmosphere of hypocrisy we live among in Bolivia. The government even tries to coquet with the tendencies of up-to dateness ingratiating itself with the Western world. Thus, the notorious law #348 against gender violence was put in force in response to the death of a famous Bolivian journalist who was murdered by her husband. The law was supposed to protect women from domestic violence, decrease the level of rapes and femicides and finally make women equal to men. It would be a nice intention if it wasn’t bullshit. Being made in great haste and only for show, in reality this initiative turned out to be good for nothing. Just several months ago we have lost one of our comrades: she was killed by her ex-husband three years after the law was implemented! Laws in Bolivia are powerless towards those with money and connections. Corruption is the main dictate of this country. First of all, let’s call a spade a spade: what they call ‘gender violence’ is male chauvinism violence, which is rooted deep in the way of thinking. The police and media lay blame on women saying that they don’t report the cases of violence which is a lie. The victims of femicides are usually the women who were murdered by their ex-husbands. It means that they did open their mouths: they divorced, they separated from the aggressors, but it didn’t save them.
What’s the situation with indigenous women of Bolivia, cholas? I read that several decades before they weren’t even allowed to enter the city squares. Do they still remain to be a discriminated minority in their own country?
Throughout past several years the situation has been improving, and the racism certainly is not that evident anymore. Since our president is indigenous, the parliament has also changed its color a lot: nowadays there are lots of representatives from the native population. However, don’t let this image trick you. A lot of politics use their dress with the object of opportunism, it’s nothing but a carnival for collecting votes. Thus, recently it’s been discovered that one ‘indigenous’ legislator has raped a woman that worked for him. What did they do to him? Did they put him behind bars, as it’s said in the law? Certainly not. Moreover, he still keeps on working as a legislator. What has happened to the woman? Who knows..
“The frailty of the state wakes sleeping energies in people, making them take a lead.”
From time to time I see the heads leaning out from the doorways. They give silent signs to Maria. I feel like I need to hurry up with my questions. I want to ask how a society like that could give birth to the powerful phenomena called Mujeres Creando, but I’m afraid to sound way too pathetic and instead ask Maria what is her opinion on the Bolivian Society:
A part of all the peculiar features that Bolivia proudly possesses, a very significant one is that the government doesn’t play a large part in the life of society. At first, it may seem a disadvantage, but in fact the frailty of the state wakes sleeping energies in people, making them take a lead. Syndicates and unions created by enthusiasts are way more effective than a bulky bureaucratic governmental machinery because they do protect the interests of their members. Let’s cite as an example women’s work syndicates: they were created because women in Bolivia crave for work and at the same time the state doesn’t provide them with proper workplaces. So syndicates take care of it. The government is not interested in changes, the old patriarchic system is easy to maintain. However, for some reason women who were brought up in sexist families, those nice Catholic girls, choose education and career over marriage. It happens in societies where the majority thinks that a woman without children is worth nothing. So somehow they come up to these strong decisions despite the reaction of their families and society. I personally find it absolutely astonishing.
So in the end it’s all about girls’ power no matter how different they seem to be at first. Is that the idea behind this statement about uniting indigenous, whores and lesbians?
It took a while for me to dig this one – Daniza laughs. Why the hell are they twinned together, indigenous women with whores, I thought. In reality, it’s about solidarity between those who don’t fit generic social standards. Whom does the Bolivian society consider a perfect woman? Who is she? What does she look like? She has to be white, heterosexual, beautiful and successful; she has to have a family. Now take a look at the discriminated minorities, why are they excluded from society? Indigenous women because of the racism; whores and lesbians on account of sexism and prejudices. By the way, here in Bolivia any woman who has an opinion of her own can be called a whore: don’t want to get married, then you are whore, don’t want to be a mother – a whore. ‘A whore’ is a key word that is used by chauvinists to paralyze you. But there is no political freedom without a sexual one. They won’t get us so easily.